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When it began operating, the Switchback Railroad was the second railroad in America and the first in Pennsylvania. Built to haul coal from the Summit Mine to the Lehigh Canal, the railroad evolved from a gravity-powered system (The Down Track) and mule-powered system (The Back Track) to a 95% gravity-run operation.
In the late 1800s as steam locomotion became more commonplace, the Switchback Railroad was needed less for coal transport but was adapted into a passenger operation. From 1870, and for the next six decades, the Switchback Gravity Railroad evolved into a popular tourist attraction—one that thrilled visitors with 50-mile-per-hour rides downhill through the lush landscape of the Lehigh Valley. It is credited with inspiring the creation of the roller coaster. The tourist attraction closed in 1929, and the Switchback was sold for scrap in 1937 and converted to a trail in 1977.
Today the Switchback Trail still inspires tourists and locals alike. Two 9-mile routes intersect to make up the Switchback. Regardless of which you choose, start in Summit Hill and bike downhill toward Jim Thorpe. The grade in reverse is challenging. Although this trail doesn't require a lot of pedaling, it commands your attention. (For a shorter ride, pick up the trail in Mauch Chunk Lake Park, which has parking, restrooms, picnic areas and campgrounds. Fishing is permitted.)
With its hard-packed dirt surface, the Down Track is the easier southern route. This track takes you along Mauch Chunk Lake for 0.5 mile and then plunges into a lush forested area. At mile 7, the trail ends abruptly on Lentz Trail Road. Cross the road, head downhill toward Jim Thorpe and continue past the power plant entrance (go around the gated drive); pick up the trail again at the back of the power plant access road. From here continue on a peaceful wooded trail, riding on a bluff overlooking the community of Jim Thorpe below.
The northern Back Track is suitable for mountain bikes. Be prepared to pay attention as you traverse ballast, navigate large rocks in packed dirt and portage your bike around sections of the trail that are too steep to cross otherwise. As this section of the trail winds down outside Jim Thorpe, you'll discover an optional small loop that takes you to a scenic overview. Beware: locals say copperheads have been seen in that area. At the trail's end, you will encounter a knee-breaking descent on a steep, slippery rock surface, where keeping your footing while holding your bike will be challenging.
Bike rental and shuttle services available in downtown Jim Thorpe will drop you off at the trailhead in Summit Hill, where you can take the Switchback Trail downhill right back into town and spend the rest of your day enjoying the many quaint shops and restaurants. If you'd rather keep exploring trails, the area has several other rail-trails to explore, including the D & L Trail – Lehigh Canal North and the D & L Trail – Lehigh Gorge State Park.
To reach the Summit Hill trailhead, take Interstate 476 to Exit 74, then take US Highway 209 South to Jim Thorpe. In Jim Thorpe, turn left onto Broadway, which becomes Lentz Trail Road. Continue past the Mauch Chunk Lake Park entrance. At the intersection of State Route 902 turn right. Travel 2 miles until 902 turns sharply right in Summit Hill. Take that right and make another, immediate right on Holland Street. The trailhead is at the end of this street. There is no official parking at this trailhead.
To reach the Down Track trailhead in Jim Thorpe, take Interstate 476 to Exit 74, then take 209 South to Jim Thorpe. Follow 209 past the train station and turn left onto Center Avenue. Take a right on Pine Avenue and left on North Avenue. There is a trailhead one-eighth of a mile up on your right. (This rocky steep ascent is not recommended as a start point.)
The trail can also be easily accessed from its midpoint at Mauch Chunk Lake Park, outside Jim Thorpe off Lentz Trail Road.
We’re a senior couple with wide-tired comfort bikes-- and decided to try out the Switchback Trail while visiting the area a few days ago. We accessed the trail at Hill Street above the Opera House in Jim Thorpe, heading north on the “Down” track. We experienced rocks and roots, but had no problems. Once we crossed the road, the trail became stunningly beautiful as it followed the creek, lined with rhododendron. The slight uphill grade was nearly imperceptible. We followed the trail into Mauch Chunk Lake Park, enjoying the views of the lake. At the park office we met a ranger, who explained how the “Back” track intersects with the “Down” track just north of the park, and heads back to Jim Thorpe. We decided to forego the trip to Summit Hill, instead, looping back towards Jim Thorpe and Mt. Pisgah via the “Back” track.
We headed south on the slight downhill grade. Perched on the side of the cliff, the trail was rocky and incredibly narrow, demanding our full attention to avoid a spill down the mountainside. Periodically, we had to climb over logs that blocked the trail. Still, we moved along slowly but steadily.
Suddenly we were facing a very long, very narrow ledge, with smooth rocks towering 30 above on our left, and more rocks tumbling into a chasm some 50 feet below on our right. Was this the “obstacle” referred to on the map, or had we lost the trail? Stymied, we called the ranger, who assured us that we were indeed in the right place, and that most folks circled down and around the cliff. Yet there was no path, just a steep, rocky descent into the undergrowth, with no perceptible way to get back up. After further study, we decided we valued our limbs enough to avoid risking falling into the chasm from the narrow ledge. It took us nearly an hour to move ourselves and our bicycles down the steep grade, and back up over the huge rocks onto the trail. Our reward was to see the opening of an old coal mine at the bottom of the chasm. Later we learned that the
The rest of the trail was similarly perilous. Large rocks on the trail precluded safe riding, so we walked our bikes much of the way. The trail was poorly marked, making it hard to know which way to go. But the amazing view from Mt. Pisgah, including the view of Lehigh Gorge State Park, provided another reward for our effort.
Rocks, roots, loose pebbles, and a very steep grade made the final mile downhill excruciating and slow. What a relief to see the civilization of Jim Thorpe! The final three miles of the trail had taken us nearly three hours. We were filthy and sweaty, and our bikes were pretty well banged up. Fortunately, we escaped with no injuries and only a few bug bites! Finding ice cream in town was our final reward!
AFTER our ride, we bought the detailed map at the bike shop. We were surprised to learn that some folks actually do cross that tiny ledge! We learned that the Hacklebernie Tunnel had once crossed the chasm that we climbed through. And we learned that the mine entrance was the site of one of the area’s first mine disasters, claiming two lives.
The Down track seems fine for most experienced riders—but the Back trail is too perilous for anything but brave, experienced mountain bikers!
I was a bit apprehensive about this trail after reading the description and reviews. I decided to ignore both and started at the bottom of the southern down track trail near where Center Ave becomes Packer Hill Road. There was parking here but it was not clear if the parking was public or private and no one was near to ask. I wanted to respect the locals so I parked a couple of blocks away on South Ave.
The previous reviews are correct about the trail surface. I was riding a hybrid bike with front fork suspension and additional suspension in the seat post. I really appreciated the suspension on this trail. The scenery more than made up for the rough surface. The incline was not nearly as bad as I expected. I would estimate it was 3 or 4% for most of the trail. The modern facilities at Mauch Chunk Lake made for a pleasant rest stop about half way up. The portion of the trail from the lake to the top is slightly less appealing than the bottom section but still a nice ride. Of course the ride back down was much easier.
Overall this trail is not suited for children, beginning riders or trailers. For experienced adult riders with a mountain or hybrid bike this is a great trail. I plan on going back to sample the northern back track.
Trail was not very well marked. We left from the park office, crossed E. White Bear Drive and headed west. A short distance there is a hairpin turn to the right to go up the mountain. The trail is not cared for. Lots of trees blocking the trail. There was a split in the trail at one point and we stayed to the left. We then ran out of trail and had to walk the bikes across a rock face. Ran into some kids and they told us about the path to the BRIDGE TO THE CLOUDS. Beautiful view, but we never would have found it if they didn't tell us. That's where the fun ended. Coming down the other side of the mountain was like a washed out creek bed. Couldn't ride the bikes. Had to walk down. Ate in Jim Thorpe at Molly Maguires. Good Food. Found signs in Jim Thorpe leading us to the trail up Hill St. THAT WAS FUN. When you reach the Switchback trail again it isn't marked. Just two stone pillars. A short distance later the trail splits. Go to the right. That isn't marked either. Someone was nice enough to paint the higher rocks and tree roots on the trail. That was a big help. I would do the trail again, but I would skip coming down the rocky side.
Riding Moutain bikes from summit hill was great until trail vanished 3/4 to jim thorpe near the cave and spring. Threaded my way through the woods to get out. Maybe if you have a gps you could stay on track, but not me!
Born and raised in the area. This is a very nice trail for running. Park at Mauch Chunk Lake Park and run the trail all the way to Jim Thorpe and back, or run it into Jim Thorpe, and run the Switch Back up to the breast of the dam back to the parking lot. Beautiful views, no liter, few people, and peaceful. Just take your own water.
I had a great ride, not a good ride but a great ride. If you are looking for a walk in the park this is not the trail for you. I do a lot of single track Mt Biking and Rails 2 Trail and this trail is a combination of both. If you read a number of reviews you can make up your mind if this trail is for you. I did it on a 29in hard tail Mt Bike and it was all the bike I needed. The up hill is a 2 1/2 percent grade which is not all that bad but it is a nine mile up hill and it still was not all that bad. If you do this trail make sure you do the Mt Pisga part of the trail. Yes the signage is poor at best and the trail is rough in parts but on a Mt Bike it is not all that bad. From Mauck Chunk Lake up you will not see much traffic as I only ran into four other bikers, six hikers and yes two ATVs. You will need bug spray and you will not need sun screen. I did not do the down hill from Mt Pisga, I turned around and back tracked to my car. I am a History buff and I really enjoyed the ride.
Just did this trail as an afternoon warm up for the Lehigh Gorge trail. Lower Switchback was good on a hybrid although the trail is not well marked until one gets to Mauch Chunk Lake. Started at the indicated Parking Site in Jim Thorpe; no signage, so missed it initially. Trail opening marked only by two small concrete posts; stay to right a little way down the tail as it splits: left branch takes one downhill to town; disappointing to have to work one's way back up hill. Review trail description of Lentz Road break before heading out; no signage from JThorpe direction when one reaches the small power plant. Fortunately, fishermen directed us up and across the road to where there is a nice large Switchback sign, although actual trail is a little hard to find.
Coming out of the woods by the lake, it is worth the time to take the very short trail to the left to the dam. Nice view of the lake with benches to rest. Back on main trail, water and bathroom at the park entrance/ranger station. Must cross main road at park entrance to continue on Switchback trail; not well marked...had to ask a ranger for direction.
We continued west until reached the junction with the Back trail; again, little signage and then headed back east towards Jim Thorpe/Mr. Pisgah. As with other reviews and description, trail is rough with rocks, runoff damage, and roots. Have had significant hard rain lately, so runoff obstacles not unexpected, but made this portion of the trail much more suitable for a mountain bike; little time to sight-see along the way because of need to concentrate on trail obstacles. Here in early June, the big payoff for the uncomfortable ride was long sections of blooming mountain laurel, long stretches of trail covered with flowering laurels made for wedding bower-like feel.
We completely missed the warnings of the "obstacle" until trail sort of ends at a cliff face. Apparently there is a side trail to go around this, but we saw no signage or trail either leaving or rejoining the trail we were on. With the lack of signage, it is possible we were on the wrong trail, but most other descriptions match what we saw, so I think we were in the right place. TrailLink map doesn't hint at this situation; we were able to walk our bikes across the cliff face with relative ease so this wasn't a major problem. Park make more distinctly indicates a side loop, but we clearly missed it.
Big problem for us was after reaching the top of Mt. Pisgah; again signage isn't clear and there are multiple option. We didn't explore much, but there weren't great views. Back down hill to Jim Thorpe was like a dry stream bed, very washed out; not even gravelly, just rocks. Not possible to ride on a hybrid; hard to see most sections doable on a mt bike. We walked the entire way back down to Jim Thorpe. Be wary of your plans if it includes this last stretch; the Jim Thorpe to top of the Mt section is not possible with a hybrid.
We were not looking for a mountain bike experience and don't want to be hard on the trail because we looking for a more leisurely, sight-seeing ride on hybrids. Aside from the last section as describe above, trail can be done on a hybrid. Lots of things to see, but we had a much nicer time on the Lehigh Gorge trail the next day. Switchback Gravity Railroad Foundation website has nice historical information about the trail history.
"On a recent trip to ride the Lehigh Gorge Trail we decided to sample the nearby switch back trail. (for a shuttle
to the top I would defintly use Blue Mountain for this trail, as the
lower trail head is about a block or two from the store).
Since we were only interested in sampling the trail we parked at
Manch Chunck lake park (just outside of town) where the
trail makes one of two road crossing, from here we pedaled up the trail to the
Summit Moutain trailhead (about 3.5 miles), then let gravity take us back down
to the lake (boat rental, bait, swimming also available at lake). While the
ride up was bumpy, it was also slow (~5-6 MPH), however the ride back down
was bone-jarring at 10-13MPH).
The switchback is technically
a rail-trail with a fairly constant grade, but the surface is ROUGH, defintly
mountain bike turf (I rode a shockless hybrid!), 1"" gravel rocks,
random 2"" to 4"" mini-boulders and even chunks of coal spilled a
hundred years ago from train cars makes this a bumpy experiance.
The very top portion at the Summit trailhead is actually a paved road (we never
saw a car), providing a brief resprit from the bumps.
I pity the family who attemps the trail with trailer bikes, or kid trailers
(yes we encountered some of these hapless folks). Good bike control is
important since you must dodge rocks, etc, and the conquence of an
uncontrolled off-trail excursion in some sections isn't a pleasent thought.
Given the opportunity
again I think I would rent a shock equipped bike and make it a one-way trip
from top to bottem."
"Set out from Mauck Chunk Lake in search of Mt.Pisgah and the views that it promised.
Found the trail difficult to ride on. Very rocky, and lot's of roots.
Came upon turn, where a local resident pointed uphill, where I could find Mt. Pisgah. Could not ride up the trail, that was a mix of sand and rocks, so I pushed my bike up, perhaps a mile or so.
At the top, I found myself in a neighborhood that a resident confirmed was Mt. Pisgah. There was a cemetery and homes, but I didn't see any fantastic views.
Where did I steer wrong?
After descending back to Mauch Chunk, I got on the lower trail. This was much easier, and very pleasant.
Found the Lehigh Gorge trail much more scenic and enjoyable. Would like to find what I missed in Mt. Pisgah."
"First time on this trail. Main trail is good. The ""back track"" is rough, with a cliff you have to detour around to get back on the path. Did not make it to Mt. Pisgah, where the view is tremendous. Ran out of time. "
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